There’s no denying that the ’90s set a high standard for entertainment across the board. For over three decades now, the groundbreaking era has had an impact that has yet to be shaken from the world. It was also a pivotal time that opened the door for hip hop culture to crossover and dominate mainstream culture. When it’s proclaimed today that there’s no pop culture without hip hop, the ’90s laid that foundation. And you can’t mention the ’90s without discussing the cinema that the era produced.
Outside of the music business, hip hop had an uptick in representation through ’90s movies — many of which starred legendary actors and rappers. Like the genre’s lyrical content, films looked at the reality the Black community still faces to this day with issues such as gun violence, addiction, hustling and generational trauma addressed. References to iconic scenes and the fashion from such movies can still be seen and heard throughout hip hop culture. The five-star soundtracks also played a hand in several emcees landing award nominations and wins as well as chart-topping tracks — creating big victories for hip hop culture as a whole.
As celebrations marking hip hop’s 50th anniversary come to a close, let’s take a look at some of the best ’90s hip hop movies below! (In no particular order.)
1. Boyz n the Hood
Released in July 1991, Boyz n the Hood — a title derived from Eazy-E’s classic record — set the tone for Black ’90s cinema. Directed and written by the legendary John Singleton and starring Cuba Gooding Jr., Ice Cube, Laurence Fishburne and Morris Chestnut, the South Central L.A.-based film put the lens on the rise of gang violence. Inspired by Singleton’s upbringing and hometown, the late director created his debut film to demonstrate the importance of present Black American fathers for youth.
Boyz n the Hood marked Singleton as the first Black person to be nominated for Best Director, during the 64th Academy Awards, as well as the youngest. The film was also nominated for Best Original Screenplay.
2. New Jack City
As hip hop serves as a creative outlet to be outspoken about the trials faced by the Black community, New Jack City shared that ethos. Director Mario Van Peebles, Wesley Snipes, Ice-T, Chris Rock and the rest of the cast and crew blew the lid on the drastic effects that occurred when the crack cocaine epidemic hit Black communities across the U.S. in the ’80s and early ’90s. Released in 1991, New Jack City was one of the pioneering movies that ushered in a new wave of Black cinema rooted in authentic, raw storytelling that was tied to a compelling message and call to action. The film is forever ingrained in hip hop history and has been referenced by countless rappers like The Notorious B.I.G., Eazy-E, Nas, 50 Cent and Kanye West.
3. Menace II Society
From the era of L.A. gangster movies, Menace II Society ranks as one of the most critically acclaimed films. Although the film centers on gun violence and drug dealing in Watts and Crenshaw, it also sheds light on addiction. Starring Tyrin Turner and Larenz Tate, the film marked multiple firsts. The 1993 release was the debut film from the Hughes brothers directing duo and Jada Pinkett Smith’s first film role. To match the mood of the California-centered film, its soundtrack featured artists Spice 1, MC Eiht, Too Short, Da Lench Mob and more.
When debating the best “blassics” to come out of the ’90s, Juice is likely to be brought up. Filmed in Harlem, it’s a tale of four young Black men who are friends and deal with gang violence and racial profiling. When their egos and fight for dominance and respect overpower their initial friendship, it ultimately leads to their demise. The end results in Ernest R. Dickerson’s film paints a parallel picture to Singleton’s Boyz n the Hood.
A film specifically made for “the hip hop generation,” Juice starred Tupac in his debut leading role and had appearances from Queen Latifah, Fab 5 Freddy and Treach from Naughty by Nature.
5. Poetic Justice
Like his debut film, John Singleton’s Poetic Justice is based in South Central L.A. and tackles gun violence, too, except specifically from the Black woman’s lens. In addition, the film touches on grief, depression, domestic abuse and misogyny. Amid this tough environment and subject matter, the story is balanced with a slowly blossoming romance.
Poetic Justice was Janet Jackson’s debut movie role and was a follow-up to Tupac’s leading in Juice, which put him on Singleton’s radar. The 1993 film’s track “Again” led Jackson to receive Academy Award and Golden Globe nominations for Best Original Song and stands as one of her 10 No. 1 Billboard Hot 100 hits.
It’s irrefutable that Friday is one of the most quoted movies of all time and has some of the most memorable movie character names (Smokey, Deebo, Felisha). Following its release in 1995, the comedy film has since inspired rap lyrics, punchlines and memes. Based in South Central L.A., director F. Gary Gray, alongside Ice Cube and DJ Pooh, wanted his directorial debut to display another side of where he was raised, amid the heightened violence, by focusing on humor (and weed). The top-to-bottom lighthearted fun and banter led by Ice Cube and Chris Tucker resulted in Friday having a long-lasting impact on the culture.
7. House Party
Music, dance, fashion — House Party is the essence of ’90s hip hop. The film not only introduced the duo Kid ‘n Play to the big screen, it also kicked off the ’90s with its 1990 release. The featured storylines hit the nail on the head on what typical teenagers are focused on: Partying, pursuing romantic interests and failing to stay out of trouble. Along with its comedic relief, the flick is a representation of young Black teenagers doing what Black people know how to do best, which is to simply have a good time. Popular references to House Party still remain in the culture today, such as Kid ‘n Play’s kick step. In 2022, the film was inducted into the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry for putting “Black teenagers, hip hop music and New Jack Swing culture directly into the American cultural mainstream.”
8. Men in Black
In 1997, Men in Black was one of the highest-grossing movies, coming in at $600 million. The high level of success put hip hop even further into the mainstream as it not only had Will Smith, a rapper, as the star of the film, but also had an accompanying album featuring the likes of Smith, Nas, Snoop Dogg, Jermaine Dupri, A Tribe Called Quest, The Roots, De La Soul and more. The movie soundtrack’s eponymous song went on to earn Smith a Grammy Award for Best Rap Solo Performance in 1998.
9. Set It Off
During the ’90s, when crime films were dominant, director F. Gary Gray and writer Takashi Bufford came out with a new approach in 1996. With an all-Black-women cast composed of Jada Pinkett Smith, Queen Latifah, Vivica A. Fox and Kimberly Elise, they portray the story of four best friends living in L.A. who are all in a bind for money — leading to a fatal bank robbery.
Along with being a box-office hit, the soundtrack for Set It Off featured successful singles “Missing You” by Brandy, Tamia, Gladys Knight and Chaka Khan, and “Don’t Let Go (Love)” by En Vogue. When it comes to the world of hip hop, the film has been referenced in songs like Drake’s “Over.”
10. The Players Club
Over the last several decades, stripper and hip hop culture have gone hand-in-hand, especially in such cities as Atlanta, Miami and New York City. Ice Cube’s directorial debut, The Players Club, took a dive into what goes on behind the scenes at strip clubs and the intricate stories behind why women may find themselves working there. With a star in the director’s chair, the film called upon much of Black Hollywood’s royalty including Bernie Mac, Jamie Foxx, John Amos and LisaRaye McCoy.
A movie with an all-star rapper cast is bound to leave its imprint on the legacy of hip hop. Starring DMX and Nas and directed by Hype Williams, who’s worked on some of the biggest hip hop music videos, Belly carved a blueprint for showing the reality of street life in a vividly artistic way. While Belly still receives mixed reviews for its plot, it’s deemed by many in the Black community as a hood classic.
12. Above the Rim
Above the Rim is yet another film on this list that stars Tupac. Although the basketball drama takes place in New York, its soundtrack was under Death Row Records. The tracklist is laced with West Coast icons Tupac, Snoop Dogg and Nate Dogg. New York’s finest also made their grand appearance as Wu-Tang Clan was featured. The album is also recognized for introducing Warren G and his breakout hit single “Regulate” to the world.
13. Dead Presidents
Quickly after their success with Menace II Society, the Hughes brothers joined forces once again with Larenz Tate for their sophomore project. Although it was another crime film, the difference was in its main theme that brought awareness to how former Black marines are oftentimes neglected and lack support when they return home — leading to challenges such as substance abuse and homelessness. Specifically, Tate played a young man who left the Bronx to fight in the Vietnam War and found himself wrapped in criminal activity to make money.
14. Higher Learning
Higher Learning marked Singleton’s third project that took a bold approach. The film, released in 1995, dissected its overarching theme of racism in America. As social injustice today remains at an all-time high, Higher Learning placed a lens on the same oppression that is voiced in hip hop. And, just like hip hop, the film serves as a reminder to pursue knowledge but to also think critically.
For their performances in Higher Learning, Ice Cube and Laurence Fishburne were both nominated for an NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Motion Picture in 1996, and the award went to the latter.
Despite featuring Hollywood heavy-hitters Samuel L. Jackson and Giancarlo Esposito, Fresh is one of the underrated classics. Described as a “hip hop hood film,” it follows the story of how youth can become involved in crime due to their environment. Like New Jack City, Fresh addresses the crack cocaine epidemic, specifically in the hoods of New York City. The acclaimed film was director Boaz Yakin’s debut.
16. Don’t Be a Menace to South Central While Drinking Your Juice in the Hood
There’s no doubt that the Wayans brothers are the kings of satire. Don’t Be a Menace is one of the most notable parodies for Black viewers. As it took humorous jabs on films such as Boyz n the Hood and Menace II Society, it brought laughter and light to the dark times in South Central, just like Friday did. With too many memorable scenes to count, the comedy is a hip hop cult classic.
CB4, starring Chris Rock, is another satirical comedy that was sparked by the rise of hip hop films in the ’90s. However, unlike some of the other films, it featured original rhymes. CB4 is a parody of the legendary N.W.A and featured cameos from Eazy-E and Ice Cube themselves. What’s more: There were appearances from Ice-T and Flavor Flav. Having gangsta rap pioneers included solidified it as a top hip hop film.
Clockers is a Spike Lee joint that came to the theaters by the mid-’90s. Co-produced by Martin Scorsese, the crime drama centered around the effects of drugs hitting the projects in New York City. Based on Richard Price’s novel of the same name, Clockers emphasized how people are products of their environment, which can ultimately lead to utter turmoil. The film was Mekhi Phifer’s breakout role, and he went on to star in Paid in Full, another hip hop classic.
19. Class Act
Following the success of House Party and House Party 2, Kid ‘n Play returned to the big screen with Class Act in 1992. The comedy is another film by the duo that followed the magic formula of putting hip hop music, fashion and culture as a whole at the forefront. To no one’s surprise, Class Act also had its own popular dance scene. While it’s not as widely known as the House Party franchise, it’s still heavily endeared by ’90s hip hop fans.